Decades after William Bridges wrote his seminal books on change and transition that I refer to frequently, the financial services industry is faced with what seems to be a new problem: when clients experience major life events, they often act like completely different people. They don’t respond the way they usually do. You can’t predict what they will say or do even if you’ve known them for years.
They suddenly find a new advisor.
Or maybe they don’t. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. After all, you were blindsided by their behavior and though you might have moved ahead as planned, things were different. Your client was different. And that’s unsettling.
The more you study change and adaptation, the more you realize that all of this is perfectly natural. All your clients want, regardless of their age or stage, is someone who has their back and understands them. And you probably know that. But if you don’t understand how transitions work, you can’t begin to serve clients-in-transition properly. Your training isn’t in alignment with their needs. And, studies show, they often leave.
Every one of your clients will experience a major life transition, and the likelihood that they will experience several at the same time increases with age. Think about your own practice and try to identify someone who has not gone through retirement, divorce, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a parent, or the sale of a business.
I have always said that when life changes money changes, and when money changes life changes. Bring to mind your last few clients who experienced significant life events. Did their behavior or their thinking surprise you at any point? Do any of these ring a bell?
- They did “a 180” regarding their plans, no matter how meticulously you created them together.
- They spoke of being “in a fog” or “overwhelmed”.
- They were focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else, resulting in a disturbance in your planning or in their ability to make decisions or implement their plan.
- They suddenly developed a dire need for something requiring resources already allocated somewhere else.
- They appeared mentally and physically fatigued.
- They had a few very simple things to do for your work with them, but didn’t get them done.
None of this is extraordinary. There are stages of transition and there are predictable patterns of struggles.
To get from what was to what will be almost always takes much longer than anyone would have thought and certainly longer than anyone wants. Why? Because of all of the wonderful things that make us who we are: our emotions, our relationships, our expectations, our hope and dreams, our history of resilience (or lack thereof), our mindset about stress and about change, and our own unique style of processing new information and events.
In short, the difficulties that arise live in the personal side of money--the Rodney Dangerfield of financial advisory that has only recently begun to get some respect. And I’m thrilled to see that finally shifting.
However, we have a long way to go and our attention has strong competition in robo-advisors and meeting new fiduciary requirements. Everyone is stretched for time as well as undeniably affected by the political landscape.
So what can you do, right now, to better serve your clients-in-transition? Absent formally studying the human dynamics of financial change, you can do something truly revolutionary: begin your own odyssey of adaptation.
Too many advisors are taken aback by the seemingly odd, uncharacteristic behavior of their clients. But—and here’s the problem—they press on, ever the expert, comfortable with their position as the authority on all matters financial. Underneath the veneer of expertise and confidence, however, they simply don’t know what to do with their clients.
Or with themselves.
It usually takes years of internal work, formal training and real-time experience to become fluent in skillfully handling clients-in-transition. Coming to grips with the reality that the trainings for the most prestigious certifications in our field focus on the technical side and merely accommodate for the personal is a crucial, humbling moment of reflection. But so much can be done. For starters:
- Practice (and practice and practice) listening deeply and completely, with your only agenda being ensuring your client knows they are heard and understood.
- Learn what it means to be present.
- Get accustomed to sitting with the myriad uncertainties that are quite ordinary in the universe of transitions. Not every question can be answered when you want it to be. Or how you want it to be. You have to be okay with that. And you have to model being okay with that for your clients.
- Change your mindset about what it means to be a financial advisor, and retire the notion that you necessarily know what’s best. The client is the expert on themselves, and will always show you how they are feeling (and if that’s at odds with what they say, believe what they do). You just have to learn how to listen to their various forms of messaging.
- Cultivate compassion for yourself. Why? Because it improves your own well-being and broadens your capacity for others.
This journey involves a fair amount of unlearning of how we were all taught to be as financial advisors. But we now know that much of the style of leadership we thought was desirable, the skills we developed, and the emphasis we prized simply doesn’t map onto clients-in-transition. And that’s because it doesn’t map onto clients-as-humans, with all of their inconsistencies of thought and emotion, and all of their preferences and values that we were never taught how to systematically access and incorporate into our work.
So here we are, as an industry, in a space that isn’t new for other, more mature fields. We are experiencing a crisis of identity and purpose similar to the one educators have been grappling with for decades. What should the role of the advisor be? I think that the highest use of our personal resources and time is to teach our clients healthier ways of being not only with their money, but with pivotal moments in their lives.